Uneven Pavement Ahead: Regional Planning for Connectivity in the U.S

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is closely watching the stepwise progress being made towards increasingly connected vehicles. Philip Law, SCAG’s Manager of ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) expects the agency will revise its regional ITS architecture in the next couple of years in order to integrate assumptions about connected vehicles.

For the current 2016 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy, SCAG will focus more on qualitative outcomes, and expand efforts to take the impacts of new technology into account both in numeric and qualitative terms.

SCAG has not yet made any specific assumptions for how advanced vehicle technology and intelligent infrastructure will play out, but this is likely to soon change. That’s because of the region’s large size and the decentralization of who owns and is in charge of various aspects of the traffic control system and roadway infrastructure in Southern California. It’s also attributed to the nature of traffic modeling. But this is likely to soon change.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization’s (MPO) staff is keeping a close watch on how the technology is unfolding and they are very interested and well informed about potential consequences.

For example, the Connected Vehicle points to opposing trends for land use, potentially either increasing or decreasing the number of cars in the system, and unevenly across the region. That makes accurate modeling very complicated. SCAG Senior Regional Planner Marco Anderson explained that it’s too early for the organization to have planning and policy outcomes based on a connected vehicle future.

“Maybe the car, from the user’s and the OEM’s perspective, will become the center of connection to everything, and this might ultimately mean a radical change in how we travel, but those changes will be felt system-wide only very incrementally,” Anderson explains, adding, “Our region is car-centric, but our planning isn’t.”

There’s also the sticky question of which bureaucracy will “own” the issue of connectivity in the region. Currently the Southern California Association of Governments partners with the region’s six county transportation commissions in developing the Regional ITS Architecture. Each county commission is responsible for its county-level architecture while SCAG focuses on regional aspects of ITS, including shipping goods, express lanes, and train control.

Meanwhile, individual cities and the counties own the ITS hardware. SCAG does not implement projects, but in various ways supports the counties’ efforts and coordinates connectivity between them, while the counties also work together. The counties deal with day-to-day operations, capital improvements and budgets: issues that are not very sexy and tend not to make it onto regional policy board reports.

Extremely incremental steps- which could add up to big changes – resulting from implementation of new concepts for the traffic control system, are between the counties or its cities, and with vendors of street-level solutions. The policy surrounding these changes is not currently on the table at the regional level.

In Anderson’s view, many big-picture issues about the future of connected vehicles will largely play out between the automakers and the public. Improved safety is expected to be one of the key benefits of connectivity, but just how connected vehicles will become safer is primarily being left to individuals and OEMs to sort out with the federal government regulating procedures and practices.

MPOs are not part of that conversation and so there are no regional standards in place yet for connectivity and its expected benefits. So far, it’s not an MPO issue, even though the region’s public stands to benefit.

At the present time, the system-wide benefits of advanced vehicle technology, including more sophisticated ITS and connectivity, are still speculative enough that they haven’t been modeled yet other than broad-strokes questions like how much travel time, in days, could potentially be reduced in the region.

The issue of the impact of the connected car on vehicle miles travelled, for example, is difficult to gauge with any accuracy because there are so many factors at play. How, in the model, should behavioral assumptions be changed?

“In general, when MPO’s model a future with Automated Vehicles, for example, it’s focused on the effects on specific intersections,” points out Anderson, the SCAG regional planner. “The effects are not considered from a system-wide point of view at this point.”

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) has jumped into quantitative and qualitative assumptions, putting the organization on the forefront of long-range planning for automotive connectivity.

According to Jane Hayse, director of ARC’s Center for Livable Communities, the regional governments of Atlanta and Puget Sound are pacesetters in considering the effects of the new technology through modeling. Officials from both regions both had a chance to compare notes and focus on this topic at a session about Automated Vehicles at a recent conference in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Regional Commission is currently working on a new Long-Range Transportation Plan for their region. It is incorporating a variety of contrasting assumptions about automated vehicles into models. The scenarios test the possibilities of several different trends coming together, including the gradual progression toward autonomous vehicles, and the infrastructural technology that will be required to support it.

ARC is looking at the implications of automated and connected vehicles on communities, including impacts on congestion, safety and growth. As part of their planning efforts, the Atlanta Regional Commission is conducting an online survey about technology and the future. They would like to find out how likely their citizens will be to embrace automated vehicles, and how this might influence where people travel, and where they would want to live and work.

As in other places in the United States, Atlanta is accounting for an aging population. But unlike in most other regions, ARC’s Long-Range Transportation Plan update planning process explores how the mobility picture of seniors will be affected by connectivity between vehicles, and within the transportation system.

“We pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge, and bring informed assumptions about the future of connectivity to planning for our future workforce, and for challenges facing society, such as an aging population”,asserts Hayse of Atlanta’sCenter for Livable Communities 

The Commission is also looking at the question of what kinds of data telematics companies will collect, and ways the data could help with ongoing regional planning efforts. The results will inform Atlanta’s Long Range Transportation planning process that will continue over the course of this calendar year and throughout 2015.

“The purpose of the survey is to gauge the public’s opinion on releasing direct control of vehicle operations to the system.  There is a significant amount of debate on people’s willingness to do this,” explains John Orr, manager of transportation access and mobility for the ARC, adding, “I’m not sure we will use it in initial policy development – just to better understand the potential challenges ahead.”

The Commission is also looking at the question of what kinds of data telematics companies will collect, and ways the data could help with their ongoing regional planning efforts. The results will inform Atlanta’s Long Range Transportation planning process that will continue over the course of this calendar year and throughout 2015.

“After the Long Range Transportation Plan update, we’ll continue to identify next steps in how the Atlanta Regional Commission can support the implementation of advanced technologies,” says Orr. “Many of the technologies are rapidly evolving and ARC will continue to elevate the discussion among regional policymakers on how our region can take advantage of the beneficial aspects of, for example, Autonomous Vehicles.”   

This year's TU-Automotive Detroit 2015 will look at enabling a smarter mobility. It will follow the evolution of the role, use-case, and function/ role, use-case, and ownership models of the car and related technology in different environments here. Take a look at the agenda here.

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